In my previous ShukerNature blog article (click here to access it), I documented two unexpected creatures depicted in a magnificent mural-format pictorial encyclopaedia entitled Quadro de Historia Natural, Civil y Geografica del Reyno del Peru ('Painting of the Natural, Civil and Geographical History of the Kingdom of Peru'), or QHNCGRP for convenience hereafter in this present article. Consisting of numerous miniature oil paintings and accompanying text on a wood panel, it measures a very impressive 128 x 45.25 inches (325 x 115 cm).
Completed in Madrid, Spain, in 1799 and now on display at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid (Spain's national museum of natural history), which has produced an exquisite, lavishly-illustrated website devoted specifically to it (click here), QHNCGRP was authored by Basque-born but (for three decades) Peru-based scholar José Ignacio Lequanda, who commissioned French artist Louis Thiébaut to produce the 194 paintings illustrating it. As noted above, most of these are miniatures, with tiny but voluminous text by Lequanda accompanying all of the 160 miniatures depicting fauna and flora of Peru or its South American environs.
The vast majority of these miniatures depict readily-recognisable Neotropical species, including a large spotted rodent named the paca, a South American zorro or 'fox' (actually a species of Dusicyon canid), an otter, tapir, manatee, various monkeys, trumpeter bird, cock of the rock, spoonbill, hummingbird, Humboldt's penguin, skunk, caiman, giant anteater, fulgorid lantern-fly, llama, vicuna, armadillos, coati, and opossum, to mention but a few.
Also present, however, are certain decidedly mystifying zoological portraits, such as that of a dramatically out-of-place Madagascan black-and-white ruffed lemur and one of a putative living ground sloth, both of which I documented in my previous QHNCGRP article.
Since writing that, I have been paying further close attention to this marvelous pictorial menagerie, and I've spotted several additional examples included within it that are nothing if not curious or controversial, for various differing but equally interesting reasons. So here they are – make of them what you will!
Take, for instance, the very distinctive creature portrayed in the QHNCGRP miniature that opens this present ShukerNature article. Whereas I am not aware of any South American mammal matching its morphology (Lequanda claimed it to be a vizcacha, and others have suggested the latter rodent's relative the chinchilla, but these bear little – in the case of the chinchilla – or no – in the case of the vizcacha – resemblance to it, I am aware that it does bear a remarkable similarity to a certain species of exclusively Australian marsupial. Namely, the lesser bilby (aka lesser rabbit-eared bandicoot) Macrotis leucura.
Certainly, its long snout, lengthy plumed tail, and very sizeable ears all correspond very closely to those of the latter species. True, its forelimbs are much the same size as its hind ones, whereas those of the lesser bilby are shorter, and its fur is white rather than brown like the bilby's. However, the limb discrepancy may simply be an error on Thiébaut's part, especially if his subject's preserved skin had become distorted via shrinkage. Moreover, preserved skins frequently blanch if exposed too long to light (the taxiderm thylacine that was on public display in London's Natural History Museum when I visited in 2014, for example, was so faded, predominantly cream in colour all over, that its diagnostic stripes had vanished).
Deriving its English name from its very large, slender, rabbit-like ears, and characterized by its tail's long white hairy plume, the lesser bilby was once native to the deserts of central Australia, but has not been conclusively sighted since the 1950s, so is now deemed extinct. Back when QHNCGRP was created, however, it was still in existence, with preserved specimens in museums.
As apparently happened with the ruffed lemur, is it possible, therefore, that Lequanda and/or Thiébaut saw a museum specimen of the lesser bilby at Madrid's celebrated Royal Natural History Cabinet (founded in 1771, opened to the public in 1776, and whose contents were very familiar to Lequanda), or even elsewhere, and mistakenly assumed that it was a Neotropical species? Or might Thiébaut have based his miniature upon some pre-existing artwork by another artist? There is a notable QHNCGRP–linked precedent for this latter possibility.
One of the several monkeys depicted as miniatures in QHNCGRP by Thiébaut is the extraordinary-looking striped example shown above. Its bold zebra-like body and limb markings instantly set it apart from any currently-known monkey species, as does the mid-dorsal row of spines running down its back. These are also alluded to by Lequanda, in his accompanying text. He referred to this fascinating fasciated creature as a casacuillo, and also mentioned that it lived upon fruit.
Rather than basing his illustration of this casacuillo upon first-hand observations of a living or preserved animal, however, Thiébaut used as his inspiration a pre-existing 18th-Century illustration. Namely, a water-colour prepared some years earlier with 1,410 others for inclusion in the Codex Martínez Compañon, a sumptuous nine-volume manuscript made by Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañon, Bishop of Trujillo, Peru. This water-colour is also shown here, for comparison purposes alongside Thiébaut's oil painting.
Moreover, according to writer Carmen Martínez, writing in an online article from June 2021 devoted to QHNCGRP (click here to access it), this creature is not a monkey at all, but is instead a South American tree porcupine or coendou, of which there are many species, all sporting a prehensile tail. However, to me it looks no more like a tree porcupine than it does a monkey! Coendous are not striped and their fine spines are present profusely over their entire body, not merely along their back. So I am unconvinced by this identification.
And speaking of zebra-patterned mystery beasts depicted in QHNCGRP, what are we to make of the example shown above? It looks for all the world like a striped carrot on legs! It seems to be furry, eared, and whiskered, and is included in the left-hand block of 30 mammal miniatures (according to Lequanda, moreover, it is, once again, a coendou!), so we must assume that it is indeed mammalian – or should we?
After all, also included in this same block of miniatures is the following bizarre beast, popularly if improbably(?) deemed to be a portrait of an iguana according to various sources consulted by me
Yet this latter beast is itself a major
mystery. For it seems to possess a stiff pointed tail wholly unlike the highly
flexible tail of an iguana, as well as long curved fangs emerging from its
jaws, and what looks like a pair of wings pressed tightly against its flanks! Apparently, like the striped monkey/coendou illustration, Thiébaut based his miniature upon one from the Codex Martínez
Compañon that was labelled as an iguana. Really??
Most improbable of all, however, must surely be the next example presented here. What on earth (or in the air!) is this extraordinary squirrel-like entity that sports not only two pairs of limbs and a bushy tail but also a pair of wings – and which are clearly functional, given that Thiébaut has portrayed it flying above a somewhat larger, rodent-like mammal in the same miniature?
Might it be the inaccurate result of Thiébaut painting not from direct observation of some physical specimen, but instead merely from a verbal description of a flying squirrel? True, the name of these rodents is something of a misnomer, seeing that they become airborne not with the assistance of wings but instead via a pair of gliding membranes (patagia), linking their wrist and ankle on each side of their body. But if a verbal description of such a creature does not make this distinction clear to an artist seeking to depict it, the result might well be an illustration of a squirrel-like creature boasting a pair of bona fide wings.
Yet even if that were true, there is still
a fundamental problem in applying it as an explanation for this aerial anomaly as
portrayed here, because although flying squirrels are widely distributed in
North America, they do not occur anywhere in South America. So why would
Thiébaut have depicted one in QHNCGRP?
Yet another instance of someone wrongly assuming that a given creature is
Neotropical when it definitely is not? Having said that, Thiébaut's illustration is yet again a copy of one from the Codex Martínez
Compañon, but in that version the flying entity looks far more like a bird than a mammal, so why did Thiébaut convert it into one in his copied version? Conversely, at least according to Lequanda's accompanying description of it in QHNCGRP, it is indeed a rodent with wings, and is referred to by him as a mutmut. All very strange!
My concern with the ostensibly unidentifiable mystery creatures from QHNCGRP documented by me here is that, as already noted, most of the animals depicted in it by Thiébaut are readily recognisable. So as those were all accurately represented by him, why should the mystery beasts here not be too, unless he was indulging in some sly humour at Lequanda's expense, perhaps? Yet if they are accurate representations, why can we not identify them?
Might at least some of them not have arisen through misapprehensions regarding the origins of specimens utilized as subjects, or even as a result of poor verbal descriptions of such, but instead be bona fide native Neotropical species that have become extinct before ever becoming known to European scientists, so their morphological appearance is wholly unfamiliar to us?
The last anomalous animal to be considered here may provide key evidence that some of Thiébaut's miniatures depict significant creatures that were still unknown to science at the time when he depicted them.
Just a few hours after I posted my previous QHNCGRP-themed ShukerNature article, on 22 December 2022, I received a very interesting, thought-provoking comment from a reader with the Google username Andrew, and which I duly posted beneath my article. It concerns the QHNCGRP miniature of what is officially assumed to be a specimen of the lowland (Brazilian) tapir Tapirus terrestris, the largest species of native mammal known to be alive today in South America, and occurring widely here, including in Peru. Here is Andrew's comment:
Thiébaut's depiction of the tapir looks like it could have been based on descriptions of the then-undiscovered mountain tapir, rather than the lowland species. It has no crest, its coat is almost black with a slight chestnut tint, and it seems to have white lips.
Smaller and darker in colour than the lowland tapir, the mountain tapir T. pinchaque is a very distinctive species that is indeed uncrested and white-lipped. It is also noticeably woolly, and looking at the tapir miniature in close-up its body surface does appear to be hairy. Moreover, of particular historical note is that this species, which is indeed native to Peru (occurring in its far north's montane cloud forests), was not formally described by science until 1829 – 30 years after the creation of QHNCGRP.
In short, if the tapir miniature in QHNCGRP actually depicts a mountain tapir rather than a lowland tapir, this means that Thiébaut had portrayed a major mammalian species three decades before its official discovery. This in turn begs the question: what specimen was utilized by Thiébaut as the subject for his illustration?
Whichever it was, and wherever it was, its taxonomic significance as representing a dramatic new species had clearly not been recognized or appreciated by scientists of the day.
As I have revealed many times in my trio of books on new and rediscovered animals, this is a sad situation that has occurred countless times down through the centuries, with obscure museum specimens having been long overlooked before belatedly receiving serious attention, only for them then to be revealed as extraordinary new species whose existence had never previously even been suspected, let alone confirmed. So the potential example documented above has plenty of precedents, that's for certain!